Playlist: Wade Bowen

This post should really date back to early January, which is when I fell in love with Wade Bowen, a Texas country artist with some damn impressive music. I had the pleasure of seeing him live sometime just after Christmas, but I hadn’t really listened to much of his music at that point. Well, he’s fantastic live, which is pretty indicative of lots of talent. Since then, he’s become one of my favorite country artists; his eponymous 2014 album contains some pretty amazing songs. I’ll be writing a complete post on his music at some point, so stay tuned.

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Playlist: Arctic Monkeys, AM

I’ve recently fallen back in love with Arctic Monkeys, and I’m glad I did. Their most recent record, AM, is absolutely delicious. It wins for the first “Playlist” post because it carried me through 36 hours of frantically writing to meet deadlines (even when I was running on two hours of sleep and had two hours to write a 7-pager). Those funky rhythms, the husky, dark sexiness of Alex Turner’s crooning voice, those perfectly constructed lyrics. The album pretty much revolves around romance, which initially seemed a bit boring–but don’t expect any standard love ballads or breakup rants. It’s honest, it’s gritty, it’s dark–and that’s honestly all I can ask for. Oh, and those crunchy guitar riffs that feel like they’re tugging your heart out. And the incredibly clever lyrics. I’ll ask for those, too–and receive them. If you haven’t heard it, you should. Highlights: “Do I Wanna Know?“, “Snap Out of It,” “One for the Road,” “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?

Introducing…

Hello, lovely readers! Greetings from the chaos that is finals time. I’ve been trying to decide how to make sure I write at least once a week (which I’ve clearly failed to do in the history of this blog), so I’ve settled on adding a new feature to my blog that I like to call the Playlist. I like to write about music, but I don’t always have time to write a proper post. So the Playlist posts will just involve some quick commentary on whatever music strikes me at the time–song, artist, album, whatever–and they’ll all be archived on the new “Playlist” page up there on the menu. I might even draw from the Playlist for extended posts in the future. First post incoming!

Rock n’ Roll Sent Us Insane: The Irresistible Intrigue of Kasabian

While working in the library, trying desperately to fight the soporific effects of writing up a case analysis, I hunted through my music library in search of some tunes that would wake me up. I happened across a band I hadn’t listened to in quite some time, and I figured I’d return to them for the evening. And as I listened, I recalled precisely how much I enjoy Kasabian, a British band with some weird fusion of rock that I won’t try to define. They’re kind of weird, occasionally a bit aggressive, and always—always—interesting. Their music runs the gamut of electronic to orchestral, spending a solid amount of time in straight-up rock territory but never letting us get too complacent with their sound. So I thought I’d write a bit about them, because I think they’re really legit and everyone should at least check them out.

Kasabian-album

They’ve had four albums out to date. Each one has some incredible songs; the band’s lyrical quality is top notch, and there’s no lack of throbbing, hypnotic bass lines and entrancing melodies. The two singers switch off occasionally on singing, and each has a very distinctive style; the more rock-oriented songs are sung by frontman Tom Meighan, and the stranger songs (incidentally, most of my preferred selections) come from Sergio Pizzorno, who now also writes most if not all of the band’s material. Their eponymous debut is more electronic, which I originally thought I wouldn’t like—but I was surprised by how well I took it. Top recommendations: “Processed Beats,” “LSF,” “Butcher Blues.” That last song has an incredible bass line; with an endlessly rolling rhythm, it’s the kind of song you just start to flow with.

Kasabian_-_Empire

The second album, Empire, is more my speed; it was my introduction to Kasabian, and it’s definitely what got me hooked. Some more ballad-type songs in this one; you still get a touch of that original electronic flair, but it’s now fused with a more Oasis-type sound. The group tackles some pretty intense themes in this, too; it seems to center on war, and their way of going about it is delightful—they explore the people behind the conflict. It’s hard for me to choose, but here are some of my favorites: “Empire,” “By My Side,” and “The Doberman.” If you listen to a single song on this album, listen to “The Doberman.” The first time I listened to this song, it hit me halfway through the bridge: this is a band with ambition, the kind that wants to sweep you up on a wave of sound and throw you into the song’s thematic depths. The tension of those primitive background vocals, the incessant rhythmic throbbing, suddenly bursting into a gloriously crafted blend of brass and guitar. It builds you up and drops you back down. Quite possibly one of my favorite bridges of all time.

Kasabianfinal_LogoCorrect.jpg

Okay, don’t be turned off the odd name, but the third album—West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum—is incredible. It’s quite possibly my favorite of theirs. It’s got some solid rock records with “Underdog” and “Fire,” both of which were well-received singles, but the real gems are the slower songs. The band really starts to switch up its sound on this album, with songs like “Secret Alphabets” adding an almost oriental flair and the ever-beautiful, quasi-orchestral “Take Aim” using strings to great advantage. The two strangest songs on the album—“West Ryder Silver Bullet” and “Vlad the Impaler”—couldn’t be more different, but they really are brilliant. The former is an incredibly stripped-down, lyrically luscious ballad; the latter combines a bloodthirsty 15th-century Eastern European ruler with an irresistibly throbbing dance beat. Weird, but wonderful. The sheer creativity of this album is incredible. Its lyrics reflect on some complex themes of humanity and love and nostalgia, and the music rises to that complexity with great success. If I were in the business of rating albums, this would get a 10/10.

kasabian-VELOCIRAPTOR

And now we come to the final album in my far-too-short examination of Kasabian’s body of work: Velociraptor! Yes, that includes the exclamation. It’s not quite as great as the third album, but that’s a very high standard to meet—and Velociraptor! is still wonderful in its own right. The instant the album opens, it begins to entrance. Here’s a hint: it opens with a gong. A gong. How brilliant is that?! And followed by a delicious brass fanfare, too. “Let’s Roll Just Like We Used To” is simply irresistible, and the body of the song follows that clever opening with perfectly timed syncopation and even more brass. This album is quieter in some ways than the previous efforts, a bit more introspective and—no surprise—a bit weirder. That weirdness adds character, though. Highlights are “La Fee Verte” and “Acid Turkish Bath,” two rather long ballads. Pizzorno’s eccentric, complex, and brilliant fascinations are especially evident in these songs. They’re irresistibly odd. My other top choice, from which I drew the title for this post: “Goodbye Kiss,” which feels like a classic rock love ballad but weaves in striking elements of nostalgia and heartbreak. I’ll be honest; this song can make me cry, it’s just that subtly powerful. Its effects are unexpected. And that is the way with much of this band’s music. Unexpected brilliance, unassuming yet incredibly ambitious. And the themes—I could write an entire paper on those, but I won’t (I kind of already did for a seminar a few years ago…). Pay attention to the lyrics, that’s all I can say. Their sound is constantly evolving in excitingly varied ways, and I devoutly hope that rumours of a new album ring true. So there you have it: a brilliantly odd band, one that you won’t want to miss. Open your mind to their innovative lyrics, complexly developed themes, and intriguing blends of sound, and you will not be disappointed.

“You Feel it in your Corazon”: The Soulful Sounds of The Cat Empire

This one’s for all you tricksters, hipsters, and prophets in the sky. As promised: my first music post. The artist is The Cat Empire; the album is Steal the Light, the band’s 2013 venture.

All credit goes to my dear brother for opening my ears to the magic that is Cat Empire; I never would have discovered these Australian geniuses on my own. Their sound is explosive, a wildly varied blend of ska, jazz, and funky rock with a distinctively Latin flavor. Delicious. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Latin; they had me at that first soulful cry of a trumpet. But this band writes the kind of music that only gets better the more you listen, the more you explore the lyrical intricacies and idiosyncrasies of sound. I’ve been listening to Steal the Light on repeat since August. It’s fantastic. It shifts seamlessly between mellow funk lines and thrilling brass fanfares, between railing against materialism and crooning words of love. The album has a palpable texture that leads me on new tangents of exploration every time I run through it. Sometimes the trumpet catches my ear; sometimes the percussion; sometimes the fantastically witty lyrics. It’s a delightfully intriguing blend of dance music with profoundly encouraging meanings, inspiring both body and mind through the course of the album. Now, let’s get into some tracks…

I shall begin at the beginning, with the song that introduced me to Cat Empire: “Prophets in the Sky.” God, this song is almost indescribable, but I’ll do my best. For one thing, the music is incredible—a quick Latin pulse, some bold brass, quick ear-catching interjections in Spanish. The initial thrilling fanfare hurls you into an impassioned mess of questions, one that intoxicates you with its sounds and intrigues you with its words. I honestly can’t tell you what those words might mean; they’re still a mystery to me, so the song continues to fascinate. Whatever it is, it evokes some sense of primitive questioning that can’t quite be explained. Trust me, it’s brilliant. I can’t do it justice here; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.

“Can you imagine a love like that?”

All of the fast tracks are amazing; to discuss all of them would take another solid thousand words, so I’ll spare you. One of my favorites, though, is “Go,” an inventive diatribe against materialism. It feels like an enormous release of madness—which works, considering their opinion on the folly of materialism. The music, though, is one of the most incredibly compelling components of the song. A steady scale progression of the low brass balances against the wild flourishes of the high brass, simultaneously creating senses of menace and frenzy that warn of chaos. That warning is clear: let go of materialism. It’s an impressively commanding song, with some of the most pointed subject matter of the album. Now, though, I’ll move on to the slower tracks, which are delightfully deep wells of interpretive opportunity.

“Every little viper’s not your friend—and a million dollars is not how this story ends.”

The mellower tracks introduce a deep, penetrating richness that sneaks into your soul and lodges there, using sound to carve out a vulnerable little open space, only to fill it with words. “Steal the Light” is the first slow track on the album, and it took awhile to grow on me—probably because it follows “Prophets in the Sky,” which doesn’t exactly leave you in the mood for mellow. But it still grabs your attention with the almost-immediate introduction of the song’s heartbeat, a rolling bass line that creates a smooth, rhythmic undertone throughout the piece. The lyrics, once you catch them, are simply exquisite. They evoke a sense of that constant internal questioning that digs at all of us, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you just decided to fuck it all and did whatever the hell you wanted to, if you would just “open your eyes / and run into the clear,” as they say. The song appeals to a certain existential loneliness within all of us (or at least me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, I suppose) that eats away at any manner of confidence; the triumphant trumpets and anthemic vocals of “Steal the Light” encourage you to aspire to spontaneity. Such subtle inspiration is compelling.

“What if I’m lonely? What if the sky should fall and disappear?”

One of the relatively few love songs on the record, “Open Up Your Face” isn’t your typical ballad. For one thing, the music begs the listener to take it easy after the intensity of the previous song in the track listing (“Like a Drum”). The brass croons sweetly, soothing the ear while bongos establish a steady, calming rhythm; later, that rhythm progresses into a slow march, equally calming. But in terms of content, it’s painfully realistic, wrought through with earthy metaphors and gritty honesty. It’s that realism that makes this such a deeply beautiful song. Love is neither a storybook romance nor a tale of destruction; it is pain and glory, despair and trust, anguish and delight, and somehow this song manages to capture these feelings without sounding quite so dramatic. The language is simply stunning. The opening lines:

“While the traffic hums

When the madness comes…

Like a flower that reaches out its fingers to the rain,

Like a bird that flies above the gutters and the graves,

Open up your face.”

How’re those for metaphors? So unassuming, yet so evocative, they simultaneously capture both the realization that love is, in fact, an everyday matter and the sense that it can still elevate you above the quotidian. And it suggests that you can get away from the occasional pain of the everyday by getting into love. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a love song until the chorus of “And I’ll know you want me, I’ll want you.” It’s really quite refreshing to be shown love rather than told about it, making this track yet another deliciously inventive song to tease the mind as well as the ear.

“Like a human cannonball that hears the match strike flame; like a prisoner listening to the rumble of the train…”

Finally, the last track in my long-winded discourse on Cat Empire. “Wild Animals” took awhile to grow on me. The vocals are a little strange, it’s a tad repetitive, and the lyrics progress a little too quickly to catch at first. But then I understood the lyrics. And they are astonishingly great. In a similar vein as “Steal the Light,” the track carries a theme of letting everything go and embracing the self. This song, though, directly questions the reasoning behind giving up intellectual and personal freedom, asking, “why’re you living your life behind bars? / Why’re you living your life in the past?” in its first compelling verse. It is a powerful reminder of what matters: nature, freedom, self-expression, authenticity of spirit. It pleads that we avoid living in bad faith—that state of self-deception in which we blame our social context for our actions rather than taking responsibility for ourselves—encouraging instead the choice to confront the conventions that limit our lives. It’s a beautiful message, really. And they make it impressively personal with this concluding verse, which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate to:

“Look out the tiny window frame that sits behind your desk—

Past the big computer screens and the jars of fountain pens.

What are you doing in this prison with your psychopathic boss,

With your brokenhearted mornings and your backstabbing friends?”

As such a deeply touching and inspiring song, you’d think it would sound serious as well. But the music practically scampers for four minutes with an easy, rolling, cheerful melody. It sounds like what it discusses, which makes it even more subtly powerful. It’s one hell of a song—certainly one of my favorites.

You may have noticed that I truly adore this group. Cat Empire is a refreshing departure from most music—whatever you listen to, there’s not much like these guys. The accessibility of their music and lyrics is a rarity; personally, I think they’re universally appealing, although I’m sure some disagree. But with this fascinating convergence of genre and content, it’s hard to be disappointed in Cat Empire–and let’s be honest, there’s nothing catchier than a good Latin beat. Check out Steal the Light; it’s on Spotify, but it’s also definitely worth buying. I promise you will be dancing halfway through “Prophets in the Sky,” and rest assured that your mind will dance as well.

And remember: “Don’t let them kill the wild animals inside of you!”

Looking Ahead

I’ve been wanting to write a post about music for a long time; ever since I started this blog, in fact. I have very strong opinions about music—and as you may have noticed, I kind of love to share my opinions. For some reason, though, it’s been nearly impossible for me to decide where to begin. So I’ve chosen my three favorite albums of the last year (well, the last 6 months or so), and extensive investigations of those albums will follow in a few parts. For now, though, an introduction.

Source: Wikipedia for "Steal the Light"

Steal the Light

First up: Steal the Light, the 2013 creation of Australian genre-defying band Cat Empire. Intriguing amalgamations of ska, jazz, and funk with a liberal dose of Latin. The music is thrilling, the lyrics inspirational, the beats unbelievably danceable. Taking a trip through this album involves moving to some brilliant rhythms and simultaneously realizing the profundity of the themes that thread throughout the record. Undeniably my favorite album of the year, though I came to it late.

Source: Wikipedia for "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action"

Round two: Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, the third album from my longtimefavorites Franz Ferdinand. They nailed it this time. It’s a brilliant record: it’s got some fantastic dance numbers, a couple of straight-up pop songs, and some heartbreakingly exquisite ballads—all, of course, with that hint (sometimes more than a hint, I suppose) of offbeat weirdness that makes FF’s work so eternally entertaining.

Source: Wikipedia for "We Need Medicine"

And finally: Seven Nights, Seven Days, another third album by another British band, this time the Fratellis (I swear it’s a coincidence that two of my top three are British…). After a bit of a hiatus, the bold wit is still there, but there’s now a new hint of maturity that adds some substance to the trio’s work. The result is a record that can evoke entirely opposite emotions at precisely the same moment; it might make me laugh, but at the same time I’ll wonder why I feel like weeping. It’s a fascinating balance with an extremely satisfying result.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a close look at each of these albums—this post is more to keep me on track than to entertain you lovely readers (I do love having readers, but it’s the truth). Watch for something about Cat Empire within the week!